by Kathleen Costa
This week we have a review of The Witch’s Child by Susan Van Kirk along with an interesting interview with Susan. Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of the book and a link to purchase it from Amazon.
The Witch’s Child: An Endurance Mystery #4 by Susan Van Kirk
Review by Kathleen Costa
A Second Act
Fifty-something Grace Kimball retired after twenty-five years as a teacher at Endurance High School, and her friends Deb O’Hara, Jill Cunningham, and TJ Sweeney all had their own idea about what her second act should be. An offer to write a bi-weekly book review column for the local newspaper seemed a perfect fit for a former English teacher, but the job, however, led her to a mystery that caused her to confront her own tragedy. Thirty-six years ago, she was the only survivor of a house fire that claimed the lives of her two college roommates and left her emotionally and physically scarred. Now, a year into her retirement, she’s navigating the not-so-easy task of writing a murder mystery novel, fussing over her new loving relationship, and involving herself in far more than her fair share of suspicious deaths. Life for this long-time widow, mother of three, and grandmother of two is full of grace and challenges.
The Witch’s Child Earns 5/5 Herb Gardens…Clever & Engaging Page-Turner!
Fiona MacKenzie didn’t receive the friendliest of greetings when she entered the café and Grace heard someone mutter, “We don’t need your kind here.” One of Grace’s former students, Fiona, quiet and intuitive, had left town ten years ago and has only returned to make burial arrangements for her mother, Sybil MacKenzie. Sybil descended from a long, glorious line of Scottish women blessed with second sight and skilled as healers; referred to by many as a witch, Sybil rarely contradicted the label. But ten years ago, she was arrested and charged with involuntary manslaughter, and under a firestorm of press and social media, she was convicted. Her fifteen-year-old daughter escaped the scrutiny to live with an aunt, but with her return, the events surrounding her mother’s crime and aptitude have again become front page fodder along with protests, harassment, and threats by Brandon Goodman, “the injured party.” However, overzealous press, a professor with “ulterior motives,” misinformation campaign, Goodman’s continued emotional and threatening outbursts, and even a mysterious stranger lurking in town pale in comparison to the murder of the judge who presided over the MacKenzie trial. Grace knows her friend Judge Powell received a cryptic threat about the curse Sybil placed on key figures at the trial’s conclusion “will shortly be visited on your head.” It may appear more complex than just a disgruntled defendant when more danger and threats occur all with an element of witchcraft.
Brilliant! Susan Van Kirk has penned another outstanding read with an element of witchcraft along with the murderous trinity of revenge, greed, and fraud. Grace is adamant her former student is innocent, collateral damage of the town’s prejudice, fear, and long memories. This puts Grace in conflict with law enforcement, another former student and friend, putting stress on several relationships. But, there are other motives not to be overlooked making this a book I couldn’t put down. There are odd occurrences that illustrated the element of witchcraft well with an air of realism, and including a Wicca ceremony and information of the belief system was a fascinating bonus. Van Kirk’s writing style is vivid in its description using a third-person narrative, rich characters, and incorporating text messages, podcast scripts, television interviews, and letters to the editor was a unique way to present background, clues, and items of interest. For readers, like me, the dynamic between Grace and her sister-in-law, her friends, former students, and her new love was an experience with which many might identify. From sister-in-law Lettie’s nagging and daily horoscopes to TJ’s transient love life, from her significant other and his renovation project to her woes writing her own novel, from her past memories to her future desires, Grace has a lot to occupy those moments outside her curiosity about the murder investigation. I personally understood well the retired teacher/former student connection with some comfortable interacting adult to adult, and others finding it hard to evolve from more formal exchanges. Top Surprise for 2021!
An Endurance Mystery
Three May Keep a Secret (2014)
The Locket: From the Casebook of TJ Sweeney Novella (2016)
Marry in Haste (2016)
Death Takes No Bribes (2017)
The Witch’s Child (2021)
I was lucky to have received the first book in Van Kirk’s Endurance Mystery series, Three May Keep a Secret, and was so engaged in the book, I had to give it a shout-out. Although all of the books seem to be stand-alones, references to Grace’s past, growth in relationships, and just for continuity, starting with book one is something many may prefer. Either way…don’t miss any of this series!
Three May Keep a Secret Earns 5/5 Fiery Memories…Compelling!
Brenda Norris, a local reporter, has run afoul of many residents for her tabloid style reporting that is more salacious than sincere resulting in at least one lawsuit charging libel. She was a former colleague of Grace’s at Endurance high school, but she was forced to resign for scandals unbecoming a teacher. Recently, she announced working on a story that would “blow the lid right off this town,” so when she’s found dead and her house up in flames, Grace immediately sees her death as suspicious, confirmed later with evidence. Grace accepted the offer made by new “city slicker” editor of the newspaper, Jeff Maitlin, for a a bi-weekly column reviewing books, but giving her Brenda’s old office sparked a different path. Filled with files of research, boxes of cold-case reports and evidence, and a few cryptic notes, has led Grace on a journey that literally and figuratively forces her to confront her nightmares when she was the sole survivor of a tragic house fire. Cold cases. Arson. Secrets. Blackmail. Murder. The perfect subjects for front page headlines.
Susan Van Kirk’s and compelling drama illustrates well Benjamin Franklin’s quote, “Three may keep a secret…if two of them are dead.” Van Kirk twists together a fascinating cold case, a reporter’s cryptic notes, salacious secrets, greed, and murder all played out with the town’s 175-year anniversary celebration as a backdrop. With vivid description, rich characters, and a complex murder investigation, Van Kirk slowly reveals several fascinating scenarios for the murder, plausible suspects and motives, and a shocking revelation leading to a nail-biting dilemma. Whew! Although tempted to scroll to the end for the conclusion, I resisted. The connections uncovered, interactions among friends, current and long ago clues, and a squeak of the door to reveal…sssh! were deliciously intense and well-worth reading every word. Van Kirk provides chapter titles to alert readers when the third-person narrative changes, and an Epilogue to clean up some loose ends. There is a hint of a possible romance for widowed Grace, feelings and pleasant interactions, but it isn’t really explored in this first book. As a retired teacher myself, I personally identify with those first months of retirement wanted to still be involved and relevant along with many of Grace’s comments: seeing former students grown up, remembering what they were like as students, and even surprised about what they’re doing. This book is now a contender for “Top Surprises” of 2021.
Be a Big Fan of Susan Van Kirk!
Susan Van Kirk may have been a late-bloomer, “I began writing at age sixty ACL [After Children Left],” but her work is relevant and engaging. Her Endurance Mystery series, with which I have become a big fan, focuses on a retired English teacher Grace Kimball. After her publisher’s change in direction, she, too, took hers with A Death at Tippit Pond, first in her Sweet Iron Mystery starring Beth Russell, a genealogist and historical researcher. All well-worth reading!
Facebook—Susan Van Kirk,Author
Website—Susan Van Kirk
Interview with Susan Van Kirk:
KRL: How long have you been writing?
Susan: I wrote a memoir in 2010 while I was still teaching. So that’s eleven years.
KRL: When did your first novel come out, what was it called, and would you tell us a little about it?
Susan: Three May Keep a Secret, the first of my Endurance mystery series, came out in 2014. It’s about a recently retired high school teacher, Grace Kimball, in the small town of Endurance, Illinois. She finds herself in danger when she investigates the arson death of a past colleague. Joining her former student, Detective TJ Sweeney, to discuss clues, Grace steps into the victim’s job and discovers that people in town have secrets they’ll kill to hide. Grace also finds herself attracted to the town’s new newspaper editor, but when suspicious deaths occur, she wonders if she can trust this mystery man.
KRL: Have you always written mysteries/suspense and if not, what else have you written?
Susan: My first book was a creative nonfiction memoir about forty-four years of teaching in high school and college. I tell fifteen stories about students who came into my life and taught me a great deal about dealing with other people and teaching. It contains every emotion you can imagine, and the longest story is about a book challenge in my high school classroom to a novel by Kurt Vonnegut. Included in the book is a hilarious letter the late author wrote to me thanking me for defending his book. It’s called The Education of a Teacher (Including Dirty Books and Pointed Looks.)
KRL: What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book/series?
Susan: The setting for my Endurance mysteries is a small Midwest town like the one I grew up in and the one I live in now. These towns are filled with history – the Lincoln-Douglas debate, the Underground Railroad, and historic small colleges begun in the 1830s. I often weave history throughout my stories, including the 1890 Victorian mansion I lived in when I first moved to Monmouth, Illinois. The protagonist, Grace Kimball, is a widow and recently retired teacher, and she helps her former student, Detective TJ Sweeney, untwist crimes. Grace’s former sister-in-law, Lettie Kimball, provides the comic relief, along with her senior citizen boyfriend, Del Novak. These are cozy mysteries, verging on traditional, and you’ll want to spend time with these characters.
KRL: Do you write to entertain, or is there something more you want your readers to experience from your work?
Susan: While I am writing cozies to entertain, I do weave social themes throughout my series. I write about women who are strong and who support each other, overcoming tragedies from our pasts to move forward, and the joys of living in a small town. Each book often contains a theme also. The hardest was Marry in Haste, the story of two women who live one hundred years apart, but who share a dark secret. Death Takes No Bribes comments on the constant testing of students and evaluating of teachers in our current educational climate. The newest book, The Witch’s Child, tackles attitudes toward people who are different than us, exploited by the news media and internet platforms. I know this sounds heavy, but I weave these thoughts through plots that are laced with laughter. Still cozy.
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just write whenever you can?
Susan: That often depends on when I need to have a book done. I spend a long time thinking before I ever write, and once I begin writing, I write most days. I also take a little time off between books. I’m retired from teaching, like Grace, so I can plan my strategy.
KRL: Do you outline?
Susan: Yes, I’m an outliner, but I mostly outline the whole book, list scenes, jot down details, and then write. I know how the story is going to end. The one time I started writing before I knew the ending, I had to rewrite a great deal of it. Never again. I’m a former teacher, so I’m a planner. When I finish writing a scene, I make sure I have a list of details for the next scene so I’m ready to go when I sit down again.
KRL: If you had your ideal, what time of day would you prefer to write?
Susan: I’m no longer a morning person after forty-four years of teaching. Back then, I was getting kids off to school and myself off to teach, so I had to be a morning person. No longer. I write in the afternoon when I’m not playing bridge. I do have my ideal writing situation, and I am grateful every day I write.
KRL: Did you find it hard to get published in the beginning?
Susan: In the beginning, no. In the middle, yes. Five Star Publishing picked up my first mystery in the Endurance series in two weeks. That seemed too easy. It was. They published the first two. When they closed their entire mystery line, my series was orphaned. But I picked myself up, did self-published a book and novella, published a book with a small publisher, snagged an agent, and now have a three-book contract with Level Best Books. In the middle of all that, Harlequin Worldwide Mystery re-published my Endurance series. It’s a very up and down business. And that’s all happened in seven years. Good thing I have low blood pressure.
KRL: Most interesting book signing story in a bookstore or other venue?
Susan: Maybe not a story exactly, but I’ve taught between 4500 and 5000 students, and every so often, one I haven’t seen in several decades will show up at a book signing and surprise me. That has happened many times, and it’s always a joyful experience.
KRL: Future writing goals?
Susan: To live a long time. I just had my 75th birthday, and I have a contract that extends through summer 2023, so I need to keep eating my veggies and walking my miles. Besides the new series with this contract, I plan to fit in more Endurance mysteries.
KRL: Writing heroes?
Susan: Because I taught American Literature for so long, I’d have to mention some of the more traditional writers I love, including Emily Dickinson, Anne Bradstreet, Henry Thoreau, and Nathanial Hawthorne. Also, Maya Angelou, John Steinbeck, and Willa Cather. My protagonist, Grace, likes those too. Most of her book titles are Benjamin Franklin proverbs.
KRL: What kind of research do you do?
Susan: That depends on the book I’m writing. For my upcoming series, I’ve researched the world of art, painting, Jamaican art, color theory, and art galleries. My Endurance series has included historical research about the Midwest; Victorian houses; the earliest domestic abuse laws; the Columbian Exhibition; food, clothing, poison, gun calibers, witchcraft, and social issues from the 1890s; mental illness; arson, etc. It’s one of those computer site histories that make it seem like you might be doing something you shouldn’t.
KRL: What do you read?
Susan: Currently, I read mysteries and historical fiction. I love reading Michael Connelly, PD James, Charles Finch, Linda Castillo, Greg Iles, Mariah Fredericks, Rosemary Simpson, and Karen Odden.
KRL: Favorite TV or movies?
Susan: I favor British crime shows like Line of Duty, Sherlock Holmes reruns, classics like Rebecca, Laura, How the West Was Won… and currently I watch The Resident, Hawaii Five-0, Blue Bloods, and Masterpiece Theater.
KRL: Advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
Susan: Never give up. It’s easy to become frustrated or disappointed, but you must keep moving forward, learning new techniques, and studying books by successful writers. When I first began, I took apart the first Apple Orchard Mystery, One Bad Apple, by Sheila Connolly. I learned so much from deconstructing her novel and keep my copy on my desk.
Check out a recent guest post by Susan in KRL.
To enter to win a copy of The Witch’s Child, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, with the subject line “witch’s,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen November 6, 2021. Only US entries and you must be at least 18 to enter. Be sure to include your mailing address in email entries so we know where to send the book. You can read our privacy statement here if you like.
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